Starting Out with a Bang

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A new company tries to get a piece of the action

My grandmother always told me not to put all of my eggs into one basket.

But all too often in the interactive software industry, that’s exactly what you have to do. A startup company sometimes can devote its limited resources to the development of just one game. When that happens, the entire future of the company depends upon the success of that game.

This is not a problem if the game is good.

Heksplex Entertainment started out just developing one game, The Boss, which is a strategy game based on the Mafia in America. If the game does well, Heksplex is likely to go far, but if it does poorly, well, they wouldn’t be the first to go under. From what I’ve seen of the game so far, it looks as if Heksplex will get by all right.

GiN spoke with Jinseop So, the Marketing Manager at Heksplex Entertainment. He had some things to say about where his company was coming from, its forthcoming game, and the difficulties of breaking into the games market.

Heksplex Entertainment – http://www.heksplex.com

GiN: You certainly made a big splash at E3 with your new game "The Boss." Can you tell us a bit about it?

So: Thanks. We were happy with the amount of interest we received — especially from publishers — at E3.

Briefly, The Boss is a RTS game with a heavy dose of management simulation, so we have an overlapping of genres. Your goal is to manage a mob "family" through various legal and illegal activities during the Prohibition era with the goal of becoming the "boss of all bosses" — capo di tutti capi in mafia parlance.

The game will feature three single play modes: Scenario Mode (mission-based), Episode Mode (historical missions), and Custom-Play Mode (skirmish or "practice"), which has multiplayer capability through LAN or IPX. We are also working on a massive on-line version, which will be released sometime after the CD-ROM.

GiN: Obviously the game market is tight because of all the competition. Why do you think that The Boss is going to be able to become a hit?

So: First, we feel the Mafia theme has been underrepresented in the game industry thus far, despite the enormous amount of public interest in the subject. Just think about the other forms of entertainment media, such as novels and film, devoted to the Mafia. And this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the rich Mafia history — full of drama, intrigue, and interesting characters. No wonder the world, let alone America, is fascinated by the Mafia.

The challenge for us as a developer is to bring the power and emotion of the Mafia to the PC game form. Luckily we have a team of top-notch programmers and designers who are hard-core gamers and want to create a game that will do justice to the genre. Our goal is to make The Boss just as memorable a PC game as "The Godfather" is for movies. That is the kind of vision and dedication we have at Heksplex that will make our game rise above other titles in a tough marketplace.

GiN: How will the boss set itself apart from other similar mafia titles?

So: None of the other titles out there have full 360-degree control of the camera angle. We decided after coming back from E3 that we needed to go 3D, so we spent some time revamping our engine. We are quite pleased with the progress of the new engine, as we think it will give gamers a better experience. That is one big difference that will set us apart from the other titles.

As far as we know, the other games don’t offer multiplayer capability or even plan an on-line version. This is another way we set ourselves apart.

Graphics-wise, we find the other titles wanting. We think you will be surprised at the authentic feel of The Boss. The game will reproduce real US cities — not imaginary cityscapes — as well as vintage automobiles, weaponry, and clothing.

Moreover, the interface of some of the other games are rather frustrating, to say the least. (If you’ve played them, you know what I mean.) Other titles sort of a have a "cutesy" feel to their game, which is fine, but we aim to evoke the dark side of the underworld. We’ve heard about new titles that have a very similar vision to ours, though some of those games do not compare exactly with The Boss, as they are more shooter-race games than an RTS/Management Sim like ours.

GiN: Can you tell us a bit about your company?

So: Heksplex Entertainment was formed in the winter of 1999 in Seoul, Korea by six persons who simply wanted make a great game that they could have fun playing. Many of the guys left prestigious universities to launch Heksplex — reminiscent of some Silicon Valley start-ups.

For The Boss, the guys decided on a mafia-themed game even before realizing that there were other such titles out there. They just loved movies like "The Godfather" and "Once Upon a Time in America." This just goes to show how pervasive the mafia culture is throughout the world and why we feel despite the competition there is plenty of room to grow.

From the original six members, we have grown to over 20 people working to complete The Boss.

GiN: You essentially formed Heksplex in order to develop "The Boss." Are you concerned that the company’s entire future may be riding on this one game?

So: From our point of view, the risk would be the same even if we were working on ten projects! But seriously, the investors who have helped fund Heksplex have been very supportive of our business plan, and we have other investors interested in coming aboard. We are in a pretty good position for a start-up.

Basically, the investors are looking at the long-term potential of Heksplex, considering the competency of its core staff, and a belief that The Boss is a viable game title, not just in Korea but also throughout the world. Investors took a hard look at the potential return and decided to back us based on our prospects.

GiN: So Heksplex is based in Korea. We have heard that many game companies not based in the United States have trouble marketing their games within the US. Have you run into any special problems?

So: Well, not really, since for a developer like us, marketing generally means finding a good publisher. The publisher will have the task of marketing the finished game in the US, so I guess your question really would apply to them. Still, we do have to consider a publisher’s strength in the US market in making our decision as to which publisher to sign with.

But after revealing our game for the first time at E3, we’ve been lucky enough to attract the interest of some major publishers to The Boss. So we’re glad to be in the position to look for the right fit in publisher. Other developers aren’t so fortunate.

GiN: How important is it for a Korean-based company to be active in the US market?

So: Well, it is the largest market, so of course every developer dreams of having a top seller there. We planned from the onset to launch The Boss first in the US, then worldwide. We did not want to try and adapt a Korean game to the US and world markets. We have to think globally for this project.

This does not mean we will ignore the Korean market, which is finally starting to get serious attention from publishers as a major market. After just two years of officially legalizing video games, Korea is already the fifth largest market (behind the US, Japan, Germany, and the UK). So Korea is also a good place for Heksplex to be. Games are booming here.

GiN: Why did you choose a game like The Boss to try and break into the US market?

So: For whatever reasons, the Mafia has been somewhat romanticized in films, books, and television, so we believe it has wide appeal in not only the US but in Europe and Asia. We had an incredible amount of interest from French, Spanish and German publishers/distributors, for example. We didn’t anticipate such a response from these countries to our game.

GiN: What is your target demographic for this game?

So: We project the main target to be male gamers from 15 to 30 years old.

GiN: Are you at all concerned that violence level in your game might turn some consumers away?

So: Believe it or not, but there’s not a whole lot of graphic violence in The Boss. We think our animation sequence at E3 maybe went a little overboard in this respect. But we wanted to attract attention, and in that sense it worked.

Still, the game does involve violence and criminal activity, since these are aspects of mob life. But we want to emphasize that business management is a big part of our game, perhaps more so than actually knocking off your rivals.

Moreover, there is an incentive in our game to be cool and calm in using violence so that you will not attract the attention of the police or the FBI (or the ESRB!) — otherwise, you might end up in jail in our game. This reflects mob history, where violence is a last resort. It doesn’t feature prominently in the mob — except in books and movies.

GiN: Is your game at all historically accurate? Did you conduct any research into the crime families in your game or is it more of a fictitious-type of world?

So: We’ve done a good amount of research on the subject. I’ve already mentioned that our game will replicate authentic cities like New York and Chicago, and use as much history as possible in terms of graphics, weapons and costumes. To accomplish this we’ve looked at historic photos, architecture and fashion books, maps, and so on. But we will do much more to enhance the game experience in terms of story and music. Luckily, we have some jazz buffs on our staff.

We’ve done a lot of reading on the different mob figures (from Capone to John Gotti) and the infamous "Five Families" (the Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese, and Lucchese) among others. We’ve looked at mob activities in major cities such as Boston, New York, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Miami-Havana, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, New Orleans, etc. Our scenario and design teams could practically get Ph.Ds with all the research they’ve done.

Of course, "the names have been changed to protect the innocent" so to speak. We’ve had to change the names of characters to avoid legal problems — as well as not to get the wrong people mad at us! We’ve also decided to compress the setting into the Prohibition era, rather than try to move around a different number of time periods, like the start of Vegas and the "wiseguy" era, which occurred later. But even though we are setting the game in the Prohibition era, we will include aspects of mob life that may have occurred before or after Prohibition, which will only make the game more realistic.

Plus, our "Episode Mode" is based on real events like the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre or the Castellammarese War, so players will be able to take a side in recreating a past event if they are looking for realism.

So, the level of historicity is one more reason we feel our game will rise above the other titles. Some liberties have been taken in creating the story and gameplay features, of course, but fundamentally the game is based on mob history. It is fiction, though, and we don’t want to sacrifice a fun gaming experience for historical accuracy. We’re not trying to be a war or flight sim, where a high level of accuracy is essential to the experience.

GiN: Of course, the main concern for any online game is lag. What steps did you plan on taking to alleviate this?

So: Even though this project began with the intention to launch on-line, we revised our plan to release the single player version and then a massive on-line version. This is in recognition of the difficulties you mention. We’ve set up a new programming team dedicated to overcoming such lag and make the online experience for the Boss something unique. We think it’ll be worth waiting for, especially if the single player CD-ROM version does the job we expect of building our customer base. Other than that, it’s too early to mention any specific technological solutions. I think we can be more forthcoming later as the online version comes along.

GiN: What are your future plans?

So: Keep on making fun and creative games. We have some other projects in the pipeline but it is premature for me to discuss them now.

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